Post-Ironman Blues

15 April 2019

One of the most surprising feelings for first time Ironman finishers is feelings akin to depression that start to creep in after a few days.

Immediately after your race, your body is buzzing with accomplishment and endorphins and this high is magnified by those around you. You hobble around, wearing your soreness with pride and blisters as badges of honour.

By the middle of the week, the stiffness has subsided along with the feelings of euphoria, leaving an emptiness and a what now? Many of us will start to feel guilty about not training and seek to fill the emptiness with activity rather than realising that this time is a necessary part of the recovery process.

Over a number of years of competing in Ironman and other endurance events, and coaching large numbers of athletes, I’ve realised that jumping back into heavy training too quickly can cause more harm than good. 

I’ve written previously that ‘a peak is called a peak for a reason. If you try and maintain a peak, it becomes a plateau’.
For almost everyone, Ironman is the ‘A’ race, the highlight of the year and they will be in best shape possible. For those of you who have tried to either maintain or build on this without having a little time out, you will at best stay the same and at worst actually go downhill. I’ll write more about overtraining in another blog.

As well as the physical strain of Ironman training, there is a massive mental strain. The times you have dug deep into your willpower reserves to get up before dawn and head out training when your body and mind are tired. Add to this the time spent away from your family, or other sacrifices you have made to reach that red carpet.

First 1-2 weeks
The first week after an Ironman, you should do no structured training. There is some evidence that moving gently helps enhance recovery, but this means walking, splashing in the pool or riding around the beachfront rather than training sessions. Don’t wear your Garmin for any of these sessions! If you don’t feel like doing these things then don’t. There should be absolutely no guilt attached to lying in bed late, watching movies, spending time with friends and family (even if it involves one too many beers) or anything that you want to do. You earned this break!

If it was your first Ironman and you have no major race coming up, you would do well to extend this for two to four weeks. Let your motivation find you again, rather than going searching for it. All too often, you’ll start training again more because you think you should, rather than because you actually want to. In the longer run, this is likely to lead to sub-standard training sessions and increased risk of burnout. Take the time now and hit the pre-season raring to go and your chances of a successful season increase dramatically.

3-4 weeks
Ironman 70.3 Durban is fairly close to Ironman South Africa this year so if you are going for the Iron Tour medal, you don’t have the luxury of a long break. That said, allow yourself up to two weeks if your body is feeling flat and tired. By the beginning of the third week, aim to be back into structured training. Remember though that you have build a big base for Ironman so keep your sessions shorter and with a bit more intensity. Doing something a bit different will help your motivation as well as your physiological adaptation.

If you aren’t doing Durban and are feeling fairly back to normal, start back gradually and aim to do 60-70% of the scheduled sessions. This is just to get your body going again and let your motivation and drive come back. It’s a good time to start thinking of your limiters and working on them so preferably miss the sessions of the things you are good rather than the things you don’t like because you are less good at them.

If you haven’t been doing much (or any!) in the way of strength training, now is a good time to incorporate that. There is a lot of research showing run economy and efficiency is improved by strength training while injury risk is reduced. You might be surprised how stiff and sore you are after your first session, which is a real sign that you need it! Ironman athletes so often have great cardiovascular fitness but are surprisingly weak. Make getting stronger a focus this winter (link) and you are setting yourself up for a great season ahead!